Where Hope Springs Eternal, Part 2
s”We few, we happy few. We band of brothers” – William Shakespeare, Henry V
Following up the story of Shawn Gallagher and the arms of the 1998 Charlotte Rangers is not easy. But two teams managed to do that and more. The real challenge: choosing between them. It came down to one thing, and it’s the ultimate thing: a ring. By playing amazing baseball but falling short of the league title, our #2 team fell just outside of the title here: the 2005 Oklahoma Redhawks, the second-greatest Rangers minor league team ever.
On a deep-dive look at numbers alone, this doesn’t bring the arms that last week’s Charlotte Rangers did, but we have to factor in A vs. AAA ball here, and the competition that implies. Here are the key metrics as I ranked the team, and how it rated vs. every other AAA Rangers affiliate from 1972 to 2014. Because of the competition level and closing of the competitive gap, I’ve shifted the run differential criteria to +8% or higher over their competition, vs 15 last week:
This team had decent pitching for its era, but made its mark with crushing bats. Among similar winners, they were dominant above teams both in and outside their era.
The future big league regulars will ring familiar with any Rangers fan of the last decade: Jason Botts, Esteban German, Adrian Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler, and Gerald Laird. The likes of Manny Alexander, Chad Allen, Jason Conti, Marshall McDougall, Will Smith, and Chris Richard also contributed as veterans or minor league standouts, regardless of their short times in Arlington. Five bats stood out. Two would become among the best at their position, while three would live on as minor league performers who were classic “AAAA” players, great in AAA but not quite good enough for the show. The heart of this lineup was Marshall McDougall, Ian Kinsler, Jason Botts, Adrian Gonzalez, and Chad Allen. Each had truly remarkable seasons in their own right.
It’s important to remember just how special Marshall McDougall was coming out of Florida State. Playing for one of the top programs in one of the top conferences in college baseball, he was an epitome of the time: able to use the lightning-rod aluminum bats then legal to set college baseball on fire. He was a 1999 All-American and Golden Spikes finalist (college baseball’s Heisman Trophy). For the season, as a second baseman, he hit .419 with 26 doubles, three triples, and 28 homers in only 301 at bats. He slugged .804. He was the 1999 College World Series Most Outstanding Player. Yet, that wasn’t close to the most impressive thing he did all year. On May 9, 1999, he had what might be the greatest single day of hitting ever in high-level baseball. Against Maryland, he went 7-for-7 with an NCAA-record six home runs, 16 RBI and 25 total bases in one game; all three totals shattered NCAA records.
The one thing you notice about that video might be the reason his power and productivity never translated to pro ball. Those were very much aluminum-bat swings. His front arm was stiff, and the swing was rotational and depending mostly on his legs and the bat for power. It was short, but not “handsy”, translated to wood, most of those homers would have died in the outfield. That said, the short, quick nature could still make him a dangerous hitter for average, and his strong frame did translate into gap-to-gap power. That showed up perhaps best on that 2005 OKC team:
That’s a solid half-season (he spent part of the year in Arlington), but for this team, that season was merely a solid contribution from a power position (3B), and one that he wasn’t even the primary starter on. That honor went to Esteban German, who wound up with less power but a solid .313 average, 27 doubles, a .400 OBP, and 43 stolen bases, and was one of 4 starters with 200+ total bases that season (for a club that set the all-time Rangers minor league record for TB).
The word for this Redhawk lineup, which is probably what managed to rank it #2 all-time in Rangers minor league history, was BALANCE. There were outliers, but contributions came from almost every spot. Almost every other team with team ranks like those above had an outlier providing most of the damage. Spokane 1974 is a classic example. In terms of overall rankings, they had some of the highest run differential and slugging numbers you can find. However, most of that was because of one man, Tom Robson. A classic minor league slugger, Robson had his finest year that season, putting up the following numbers: 35 doubles, 41 homers, 131 RBIs, a .322 average, and a 1.022 OPS.
By contrast, including the aforementioned McDougall splitting time at third with German, there wasn’t a true hole among the leading position players. There were outstanding campaigns – more on that shortly – but this team was strong, one through nine:
The WORST hitter in that lineup, Jason Conti, still slugged .422 with a .746 OPS. But there were really three key mashers for the club.
One was Ian Kinsler; I’m not going to take up your time with his scouting report, because he became everything projected and then some.
His power in OKC, with that violent uppercut, portended a man who would become perhaps baseball’s best all-around second baseman for two World Series teams. For this OKC team, he combined speed and power to an unmatched level.
Same goes for Adrian Gonzalez, who reached his potential outside of Arlington, but who has turned himself into a picture of consistent production with San Diego, Boston, and now the Dodgers, with a career .293/.365/.501 slash (BA/OBP/SLG) line. As a former top pick, he was considered the best pure hitter in the high school ranks; he had quick wrists, a classic lefty swing, and strong plate discipline. There was some question about how much home run power he would develop, but that worry ended as he grew into his tall frame.
The one thing that has been consistent across the decade since he appeared in OKC is that never-changing sweet swing.
His short, inside out stroke combined with a strong build (he attributed it to a carne asada offseason, giving him bulk and strength classic of power hitters from the waist down) gave him tremendous opposite field hitting ability. When he learned to turn on the ball, that stroke helped him put up 161 homers in five seasons in a pitchers park in San Diego, along with 37 and 45 doubles in two seasons at Fenway in Boston.
Chad Allen was a local boy trying to make good. The son of former NFL defensive back Jackie Allen, Allen grew up in Duncanville a fan of the Texas Rangers and roomed with future major-league hurler Ryan Rupe at Texas A&M. He was a good burner coming out of college, but as his power went up, his speed dropped. The problem was really that the one never quite made up for the other. The change turned out to be logical enough, as he was later named in the Mitchell Report. He was a role player in the show for a time, with his best season his rookie year in Minnesota (1999).
By 2005 he was 30 and playing out the string, but he was another of the classic members of truly great minor league teams: the 4A player. Beyond prospects and veterans hanging on, these are true minor league performers.
They’re the glue of the roster, and, if built right, they’re also great role models for the prospects coming up. And, they show enough pop to let those hang-on veterans continue to dream. Chad Allen was that type of player. Here is his CAREER minor league slash line across 10 minor league seasons: .309/.362/.462 with an .823 OPS, just under 1,000 hits, and 1400+ total bases.
He helped in the top of the order for this Redhawks team, a speedster who didn’t really steal much anymore (he had 10 stolen bases to Gerald Laird’s 12) but with enough hits and walks to make him effective at getting on, and enough pop to protect the top spot guys like German.
Then there was Jason Botts, the latest in a long line of mashing outfield hopefuls for the Rangers. A decade on, it’s probably hard for a lot of people to remember what kind of potential Jason Botts brought, but there was Joey Gallo-like reverence for his strength. Like Gallo, he was a big power, big strikeout hitter. Unlike Gallo, he lacked the classic “third outcome” that keeps such hitters in the show: he just never learned to take walks. Even for this phenomenal 2005 season, Botts put up a huge strikeout number (152) against less than half as many walks (67). Despite the clear limitations, scouting reports on Botts glowed bright enough to be seen in Arlington. Consider Baseball America’s 2006 report, based off this 2005 campaign:
Strengths: Botts has the body and athleticism of an NFL tight end, and he has more raw power than anyone in the system. He hits for power from both sides of the plate but is a better hitter righthanded. He draws walks and isn’t afraid to hit with two strikes. He runs well for his size, particularly once he gets under way.
Unfortunately, as noted, he never learned to draw those walks at the big league level, and the “weakness” portion of his scouting report – particularly about how useful his power might be – turned out to be spot on. For all you Gallo fans – and we are legion – please know there has never been such a worry with Gallo. Botts was never more than a 60-65 on the power scale. Gallo truly does top out at 80, as these few weeks in Arlington have shown.
Other than a partial season of success before a call up to Texas in 2006, Botts never matched his 2005 breakout campaign in the high minors. He’s turned in some solid Peurto Rican winter league and Mexican League seasons, though, and has managed to put together a career as a minor leaguer. By 2014 he was toiling in independent ball with the Grand Prairie Airhogs.
On the pitching front, this is nothing like Port Charlotte’s rotation full of aces. There’s honestly not a lot to say for this staff, other than 1) they were collectively consistent enough to win and 2) they were products of their era, the run-saturated mid-2000’s.
The top starter, R.A. Dickey, finished 10-6 mainly due to run support, as be brought a 5.99 ERA to play. John Wasdin was 9-2 despite a 4.93 ERA. About the only starting pitcher to write home about was Ricardo Rodriguez. The veteran was 7-3 with a 2.91 ERA. Collectively, though, the staff’s lack of an ace didn’t impact the regular reason. It was only where these things mean the most – the post-season, in the playoffs vs. Nashville, where the rotation failed them, 3 games to 2. That loss in the semifinal series cost this team their shot at #1 on our list.
The team that took that spot – a team we’ll visit next time – closed the deal and took home hardware along with history.